St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
The formation of the early church continues in the scripture readings. Now we know that Jesus is risen from the dead – and that he is the Good Shepherd of his people. But our faith is based, not just on Jesus alone but on the Trinity. Thus, in today's Gospel Jesus teaches us that resurrection faith involves the Father and the Holy Spirit as well. This is all preparing us for the celebration of Pentecost in two weeks' time. What do I hear today?
Firstly, Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as the 'spirit of truth'. Truth is a word that can easily be bandied around. It can be used to liberate people - or it can be used to bind people into supporting a particular political, religious or social narrative. We know how stories about the past can be used to nourish anger or resentment. Jesus wants to free us from being prisoners of half-truths, victims of those who would keep our hearts locked up in anger. For Jesus, the truth is meant to set us free. We see Philip in our first reading speaking about Jesus in Samaria, where a Jew might feel unwelcome. But the truth about Jesus goes beyond the barriers that human beings erect. We will see that as the early church expands. Gentiles, Greeks and Romans are welcomed into the early church, even though they had long been seen as outsiders, people to be avoided. The Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promises, is driving us to bring good news to the most unlikely of places. It is a mistake to assume that God merely wants us to aim for a small, pure church. Whatever our size in any given time and place, we are part of a movement to make disciples of all nations. We are a maternity ward where the future is being born, not merely a hospice for a dying past.
Secondly, it is clear that truth is not an open door where anyone can dander in and out. St Peter in our second reading calls on his listeners 'to have an answer ready for the people who ask you the reason for the hope that you have'. Faith in Jesus is a respectable conviction of very many people. However, there can be narrow conviction that what I believe is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – and that I am entitled to batter other with the weapon of the truth. Hearts that were closed to growth were the biggest obstacle that Jesus faced from the Pharisees and the Sadducees. But there is also the position which says that truth is what I feel today – and that it can change tomorrow if I feel differently. Jesus wants us to search for the liberating and sometimes uncomfortable truth. That applies to the history of this country and to the past of our church. Those who hide the mistakes of their own past are the most likely to offer a glowing picture of a glorious future. Those who recognise the sin that has scarred every age and every movement are able to base their hope in the grace of God at work in unlikely people and places. That is why we can be amazed by stories of saints from the persecutor Paul to Clare Crockett and Blessed Carlo Acutis. Our hope is based on the power of God's mercy to make little saints. The danger of politics is that candidates promise more money for more things and services – but avoid any reference to the blatantly obvious truth that change comes from healed hearts and not just from heftier handouts. A political world that fears speaking about good and bad, truth or lies will ultimately keep shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic but forget about the icebergs of low expectations and glitzy promises that are holing too many people's lives below the waterline. The church will help the world to be renewed when we are equipped 'to have an answer ready for the people who ask you the reason for the hope that you have'. That is what the Spirit of truth wants us to receive.
Thirdly, Jesus says that he will not leave us orphans. St Peter knows that Jesus' followers will be attacked when we try to live what he calls 'a good life in Christ'. Criticism followed Jesus wherever he went. But he was proved to be right by the Resurrection. The early church knew that criticism came from inside and outside – and that suffering for the truth was often unavoidable. Renewal in our day is not a question of seeing how we modify our teaching so that the establishment finds us inoffensive. What has always kept people going has been the conviction that, in our dogged search for the truth, we have an advocate, a consoler with the Father; that we are loved by the Father, even if we are hated by powerful in the world who propose that only they are the infallible bearers of an ever-changing and self-serving version of their truth. Faith in Jesus was never an invitation to win a popularity poll. When future historians look back on this period, they will assess the role of church, not by how much it conformed to the spirit of the times, but by how we spoke divine consolation those who were hurting and spoke truth to those who rise to power on the shaky foundation of hollow promises.
This period between Easter and Pentecost is preparing us for the mission of bringing the truth to shine on the reality of our times. Faith deals with concrete realities by looking at politics and economics in a particular perspective which speaks of here and hereafter, good and bad, sin and forgiveness. We will be criticised by those want to avoid such categories and want to limit our vision to what the market demands and what helps us dull the nagging pain of hopelessness. Our weekly gathering for Mass wants to nourish our understanding of life and love and to celebrate Christ's victory over all that tries to mock human dignity and worth. It gives us strength to proclaim that those who love Jesus keep his commandments – and will be loved by Him and by the Father. This is the reason that we give for the hope that we have. Because Jesus lives, we will live. This pre-Pentecost period tells us that our parishes have to be gearing members up to know what we stand for, to be able to articulate that faith and to live as if we believed it. This is where renewal will be born. There is no other way. And that is the uncomfortable but ultimately liberating truth that Jesus wants us to hear in 2023.
+ Donal McKeown
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